By: Ben Smith and Keach Hagey / Politico / September 20, 2010
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have cast their faux dueling Washington rallies as a kind of grand satire of the current state of media and politics.
“It’s just like everything they do – it’s really for the joke,” said one person familiar with the planning of the October 30 event, who asked – in the spirit of the “Daily Show” – to be described as a “senior administration official.”
But if it’s a joke, it’s a practical joke — and the targets are Glenn Beck, his followers, and the Republican Party candidates who face election three days after the event.
“Glenn Beck makes a big deal out of how, ‘whatever you believe, all these people are really passionate about the issues, and look at this amazing turnout,’” said the person familiar with the planning. “We’re going to show you how ridiculous Glenn Beck is because we’re going to put two comics up there and they’re going to have more people.”
The event, three days before the crucial midterm elections, may be on track to draw a crowd on Beck’s scale. On Facebook on Monday afternoon, more than 98,000 people said they planned to attend the event, and an additional 50,000 said they might attend.
“It’s like the country’s largest P.S.A., raising awareness and telling young people that there is an election a few days later,” said Heather Smith, the president of the group Rock the Vote, which anticipates up to “hundreds of thousands of young people” on the mall that day.
At a moment when cool, hard irony – a reaction to the heat of the tea party movement – appears to have replaced the hope that buoyed Comedy Central’s young viewers during the 2008 presidential campaign, the rally will be the Democrats’ last best chance to convince a crucial demographic to focus on the midterm elections – and to vote Nov. 2nd.
Last Thursday, when he announced what he called “the rally to restore sanity,” Stewart said he expected “guests,” but this will not, the person close to the event said, an overtly political event. Plans for the march currently include, instead, a musical act and appearances by entertainers.
“There is not going to be messaging around candidates,” the person said.
Stewart and Colbert are making the central planning decision, however, and the plan remains in flux, as their network and two former Clinton aides consulting on the event, Craig Minassian and Chris Wayne, follow their lead.
Comedy Central, Minassian, and Wayne on Monday all declined to comment on the details of the plans beyond what Stewart and Colbert said on their shows. They have filed for a single permit for both rallies. The source said the application was proceeding smoothly, but details of the event – including who will pay for it – remain unclear.
Democratic operatives and organizations, meanwhile, are heatedly debating what to make of the unconventional event, and how to take advantage of it.
Some experts in field organizing even worry that a big attraction on the Mall on the Saturday before Election Day will pull activists out of their districts and away from the crucial door-knocking and phone-banking that can make a difference in the mid-terms.
“I find it very disturbing that people who say they really care about voting and making real change in D.C., will be taking thousands of people away for a comedy show, when they should be working in their respective communities to make sure that change comes in November,” said a Democratic consultant, Kevin Wardally.
But others view the rally as a last chance to energize members of a demographic who backed Obama to the hilt, but who seem to have no idea who is running for Congress in their districts – much less an inclination to knock on doors for them.
“He will energize many, many more people than he will distract,” said Dan Cantor, a veteran of the left’s ground game who is executive director of New York’s Working Families Party. “And those who attend are only a small piece of the audience.”
“Anyone who’s going to be involved in the final weekend push is not likely to skip it just because of a comedian’s rally, and these guys reach an audience that’s high risk to sit this election out,” said Ilyse Hogue, the communications director for MoveOn.org. “The rally — if it happens — and the buildup to it, is likely to get a younger, more apathetic electorate involved.”
And though Stewart and Colbert aren’t planning to practice electoral politics, MoveOn and other liberal groups will be poised to take advantage of the gathering.
“We are scheming over here, trying to figure out how to take advantage of the tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of young people who will be there,” said Smith of Rock the Vote which, while technically non-partisan, focuses on bringing to the polls a demographic that tends to back Democrats.
Although Rock the Vote is not quite sure what kind of official presence it will have at the rally, it does plan to send representatives to collect rally-goers’ contact information and get them to sign pledges that they will vote.
And the group’s polling suggests that Comedy Central’s ironic detachment may be the right posture for a generation that, just two years ago, poured its heart into Barack Obama’s election.
More than half of those who participated in a recent survey said they were more cynical than they were two years ago, a trend that Smith traced to frustration with the pace of change and partisan tone in Washington.
With Stewart and Colbert refusing to answer questions, how they got the idea for the rallies is hard to know. But on Sept 1, just two days after Beck’s rally, a Reddit poster named mrsammercer wrote a late-night call for Colbert to hold a mock rally of his own, saying it would be “the high water mark of American satire.”
The internet petition soon had its own website and Facebook group, and was picked up by the Huffington Post. The “Restoring Truthiness” petition, which originally sought to get Colbert to hold a rally Oct. 10, ended up raising more than $200,000 for charity.
Once Stewart and Colbert announced their plans last week, the mainstream media took over the role of the rally hype machine, in much the same way it did in the months leading up to Beck’s rally.
But while the New York Times and the Washington Post ran stories and columns skeptical of Beck’s motives, the papers so far have devoted prominent placement to uncritical articles of the Stewart and Colbert rally.
That has led some on the right to charge that Stewart is getting a “pass” from the media for doing exactly the same thing that Beck was so harshly criticized for – holding a big rally on the National Mall to represent his political point of view around the same time that Stewart also has a new book coming out. .
Beck had originally planned the rally to coincide with the release of a book called “The Plan,” but changed his mind about writing the book and shifted the emphasis of the rally to “Restoring Honor.”
Yet for his part, the conservative talk show host, echoing his magnanimous statements in a recent New York magazine profile of Stewart, said he wished the comedians the best.
“8/28 was a historic event for a lot of Americans,” Beck said in a statement Monday. “I hope that Ed Schultz, the AFL-CIO, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and whoever else wants to plan a march in D.C. have the same great success that we had with Restoring Honor.”
If such positive media coverage continues, it seems entirely possible that the Comedy Central duo could outdraw their inspiration.
Either way, the comedians’ performance will be covered like a political event. C-SPAN has already applied to carry it live.